Duel Over Home Rule
IN an unprecedented encroachment on a city's spending prerogatives, Congress voted nearly two weeks ago to effectively end Washington D.C.'s abortion program for the poor, which is funded by city taxpayers. Congress, in its wisdom, went on to repeal three other laws that had been approved by the city government--the residency requirement for city workers, a section of the city's human rights law, and a ban on insurance company discrimination against AIDS victims.
The message of this assault, which would be blatantly unconstitutional in any other city in the nation, should be clear to anyone who has ever lived in--and not just visited--the nation's capital.
Although Washington's democratically-elected City Council had the power to enact these provisions, the city still remains at the mercy of Congress. Such is the state of affairs in the District, which until 1975 was not even allowed any form of self-government. In the same year, the city was granted an elected delegate in the House of Representatives; the only problem is, he can't vote.
This recent Congressional action only reminds Washingtonians that they remain subject to the whims of politically-motivated legislators who should have no business meddling in the internal affairs of a city outside of their jurisdiction. Congress legally has final say over District appropriations and retains its authority to "amend or repeal" the city's laws.
Whether or not one agrees with the controversial laws Congress knocked down, the legislative threat to withhold tax money actually raised by the citizens for the day-to-day administration of their own elected government negates the principle of local self-government. Unfortunately, such principles mean little to congressmen who believe that anti-abortion and anti-gay votes will bolster their reelection prospects.
This recent legislative action shows clearly the power of powerful, vested interests--such as the insurance lobby and nationwide evangelical organizations--against local residents, especially when these residents are predominantly poor and Black and have no representation in Congress. Most of all, such outside interference reveals the city's increasingly strained relationship with the Congress on which it must rely, and indicates that its own local government may be in jeopardy.
THE current District government has brought such Congressional pressure on itself and, more importantly, on its citizens. Any chance for statehood or for any other form of Congressional representation for the nation's capital has been squandered by District Mayor Marion Barry. He has run a scandalous administration which has made Congressional supporters of "home rule"--the right for an elected government and a mayor--cringe in dismay and opponents dance with glee.
At least 11 officials in the Barry Administration, two of them deputy mayors, have been indicted and convicted since Barry was first elected in 1978. His ex-wife went to jail in 1983 for embezzling federal funds while she and Barry ran a youth training program.
Another woman who had been a close associate of Barry's went to jail for dealing cocaine and later admitted before a grand jury that the mayor paid her $25,000 to deny that he had been a buyer. Barry himself has been the target of two federal investigations centering on influence-peddling and the misuse of city contracts, has illegally used city funds for his family's personal expenses, and had to be thrown out of the house of a young model he had been harrassing.
The Barry administration has had an extremely shoddy record of municipal administration. The city's ambulance service casually arrives 20 minutes late at the scene of car accidents and heart attacks. A loan program designed to aid poor families in meeting mortagage payments has mainly gone to aid middle-class families, including members of the Barry administration--most of whom could handily afford the payments.
Rampant overcrowding in the city's jails remains an acute problem, and last year the Democratic-controlled House came within 10 votes of overturning the District's controversial early-release program for prisoners--which is known for its mistakes more than its value. "Minority contracting," a sound idea designed to ensure that Black businesses are represented among the firms getting city contracts, has become synonymous with Barry's own influence-peddling.
AS a result of such widespread corruption and ineptitude, Congress has come to realize that the District, under the Barry administration, cannot manage its own daily affairs.
Even D.C.-supporters in Congress foresaw the potential for extensive interference from Capitol Hill. In an August 1986 editorial in the Washington Post, Congressman Stewart McKinney (R-Conn.) warned that the rampant corruption, inefficiency, and misconduct of the Barry administration would soon threaten the future of "home rule."
Coming from McKinney, a major District ally who was the ranking Republican on the House District Committee until his death nearly two years ago, such warnings should have prompted Barry and his apologists in the city government to clean up their act. They didn't.
As a result, not only is time running out on statehood, but the District's right to "home rule" may soon be in jeopardy. McKinney's death and the recent retirements of Senators Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) and Charles Mathias (R-Md.) have deprived the city of three of its major allies on the Hill.
Younger congressmen, who were not involved in the 1975 struggle for District home rule and whose impressions of the city's ability to run itself have been shaped by the scandals of the Barry administration, are now gaining key posts in the District Appropriations Committee.
Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), the new ranking Republican on the District Committee, exhibited this increasingly hostile attitude, when he warned that any action by city officials protesting the Congressional action would be met with heavy-handed resistance. "We gave it [home rule], and we can take it away," Parris threatened.
As long as Congress retains its current, sweeping powers over the city, "home rule" will remain an affront to the democratic rights of every District citizen, Black or white. And as long as the Barry administration continues to betray the trust of the city's residents, the prospects for any effective self-representation in Congress will remain bleak.